TUNISIA: Debate on higher education problems and future

The future of higher education in Tunisia following the revolution in January has been under debate in the media. In a series of articles, La Presse questioned whether the sector "truly responds to the commonly accepted demands on universities?" Are there links coordinating teaching with the job market, have higher education's problems been identified and what should reform priorities be?

Issues that had "vegetated for a long time" ranged from teaching programmes and relations with students to choice of studies, evaluation, administrative resources, the demands of teaching unions and the LMD, the degree system based on Europe's Bologna process of three (bachelor), five (masters) and eight (doctorate) years higher studies.

Higher education had not escaped the past decades of manipulation and nepotism, said La Presse. "For a sector where competence, scientific demands and rigour should take precedence, vested interests have had a degenerate effect which has had repercussions on the quality of education, and on the scientific and intellectual climate of the university."

Many teachers and administrators had benefited, but those who had called for reform had been excluded. Meanwhile the value of degrees and quality of education had been so devalued that graduates showed little promise of employability, said the paper.

Four months after the revolution the challenge of organising examinations needed to be met, and thankfully a wasted year had been narrowly avoided, said La Presse.

The new academic year was taking place under the auspices of democratic transition.

Transparent and democratic elections had reestablished confidence in institutional leaders and the need for reform seemed to have found a response - "teachers, managers and students, not forgetting the unions, have resolutely decided to get a move on and start again on the right foot, if not for this year at least for the next university period," concluded the newspaper, which interviewed members of the university community for its series of articles.

Some of its findings are given below.

The academic union leader

Sami El Aouadi, a professor in the faculty of economics and management at Tunis University and a leading trade unionist, told La Presse that Tunisians could be proud of their educational achievements in general and universities in particular.

In spite of all that the former regime had done and bad management, thanks to university women and men, unions and activitists, good work had been done in difficult conditions to transmit knowledge and carry out research.

But, he said, quality had been sacrificed for quantity. Because of student expansion and overcrowding, the quality of teaching, supervision and evaluation, as well as conditions for students, had deteriorated badly. Universities accepted students who were not well enough qualified, under a system that artificially inflated their numbers, leading to a leveling down that had insidious repercussions on evaluation.

"It's a means of artificial retention of students to avoid complicating employment data," Aouadi told La Presse. "This politically manipulated choice has transformed the university into a waiting room for the threshold of the job market."

Student expansion had not been accompanied by adequate recruitment of qualified, permanent teachers. The ministry had been forced to hire staff who were not always qualified for higher education, such as secondary school teachers and thousands of contract and part-time personnel who had not received the necessary training.

Another problem was university management. In the name of decentralisation, and following a certain "populism" that served political aims, "sort of desert cathedrals have been placed here and there which are universities only in name", said Aouadi.

"Isolated from everything and located in unsuitable environments for developing a university ethos, they have neither the necessary premises nor adequate administrators or teachers."

He said it was a good idea to decentralise and take universities to the interior of the country; but rather than medical faculties or engineering schools, they offered small institutions "created to absorb excessive student numbers".

Introduction of the LMD system was the last important reform. But where the Europeans had allowed five years for negotiation, Tunisia's former minister had adopted it illegally in haste, without appropriate texts and without consulting lecturers, said Aouadi.

Universities had been converted into vocational education centres, which Aouadi regarded as a deviation from the university mission, said La Presse. "It's not the role of the university to respond to the expectations of the job market. It's not because the job market does not offer posts for philosophers that universities must stop educating philosophers, historians, sociologists and anthropologists. Society needs them."

The LMD system must be reviewed in the areas of "evaluation, which is extremely cumbersome and requires more time than the time devoted to teaching; and the courses which have been hastily put together", said Aouadi.

He said the university was partly responsible for graduate unemployment, because it had not innovated, developed or modernised itself.

But the economy shared responsibility: because of its limited scope it did not offer employment for trained managers, or if it did they were low-level jobs. It could not absorb the 250,000 unemployed higher education graduates, and it was necessary to boost the creation of new, constructive companies that could recruit managers.

Aoudi called for reform of the school-leaving baccalauréat examination to make it more socially equitable; and for improved vocational training for young people who were less interested in a university education than in learning applied and practical skills.

The business school director

In the view of Karim Ben Kahla, director of Iscae, the Institut Supérieur de Comptabilité et d'Administration des Entreprises, "university increases frustrations and institutionalises ignorance", said La Presse.

Ben Kahla judged the situation to be "catastrophic", taking into account the state-allocated budget, sacrifices made by families and efforts made by students, reported La Presse. Graduate unemployment was a national problem.

With a mismatch between the employment market and university education, instead of producing future managers for the country's institutions the Tunisian university had become an unemployment factory, said Ben Kahla.

Companies themselves did not understand the demands of the job market. "We're asked to adapt to the demands of companies, while they are themselves hopelessly unadapted," he said.

Small unambitious companies were unresponsive to the demands and needs of society, let alone the world economy, and kept themselves afloat through nepotistic networks. "The mission of the university should be to change things, not to adapt itself to a mediocre reality," Ben Kahla told La Presse.

He believed universities had been badly prepared to cope with student expansion, which had been a political decision. The old leaders had chosen quantity to the detriment of quality.

Selection should take place at baccalauréat level and instead of 400,000 badly managed and badly educated students there would be only 100,000 with the requisite qualifications. If the aim was to provide free, public and relatively decentralised education with the scarce resources available, no other results could be expected.

Another hard reality was the scarcity of academics, with the retirement of the founders of Tunisia's universities. Students were no longer interested in spending five or six years after graduating on a low academic salary while their friends who had chosen other careers were earning more.

"The good elements have deserted the university and the teaching profession has been downgraded, just like the administrative posts in the university system," said Ben Kahla.

Tunisians had to choose between providing free education with graduates doomed to unemployment, or investing money to achieve a well-educated graduate qualified for the best posts. "In spite of difficulties, Tunisians invest in their children's studies, this is our mentality," Ben Kahla told La Presse.

The vocation of universities was to educate leaders. But the few leaders who had been educated in Tunisian universities had gone abroad, and should be compelled to return, he said.

He suggested academic tourism could be an option. By offering good courses and degrees, Tunisia could educate the rest of Africa and the Mediterranean area.

As well as a complete revision of the system, he proposed a greater role for private higher education and called on the business sector to get involved - "sponsor placements, fund study grants abroad and - why not? - finance university libraries".

The vice-rector

Professor Ouajdi Souilem, a doctor of pharmacology and elected vice-rector of the University of Manouba, told La Presse that universities had "participated in the social fracture".

There was a long list of failings for which the former regime was responsible. The system had created rich courses and poor ones; students with low resources from disadvantaged backgrounds most often found themselves in the second.

The absence of academic and scientific freedom under the former regime had gone hand in hand with the politicisation of universities and their manipulation for political ends, Souilem told La Presse.

Other difficulties had also weakened the system, tarnished its image and paralysed it - such as deteriorating teaching standards, an automatic consequence of the explosion of student numbers.

Leveling down had made the Tunisian university not a centre of knowledge but "a provider of diplomas sometimes stripped of the slightest value", said Souilem. Higher education suffered from weak links to the economic world and society.

One could not generalise though, he said; standards had been preserved in some faculties, schools and institutes.

While there was funding for research, the administration delayed the funding process, said Souilem, and academics in charge of research and laboratories had problems. Another difficulty was the fracture between research and teaching.

But Souilem sounded a note of hope for the future. For nearly two decades the university had failed in its mission to provide education and social reference points. Then after 14 January the entire university system was freed from an oppressive yoke, and a renewal of confidence between the university, the student and the environment was shaping up.

This new climate favoured the emergence of highly qualified people who occupied decision-making posts solely thanks to their skills, and education was opening up internationally.

Now was the time for consultations between the different players in the university system, with teachers mobilising to defend academic and financial autonomy, said Souilem.

The university

On a visit to the University of Jendouba, which specialises in law, economics and management, La Presse found an absence of research units, lack of supervision and "deplorable" working conditions.

A group of third year students had organised a sit-in because they had been refused registration for a masters course in private law; out of nearly 3,000 applications, only 400 had been accepted.

"There is despair on the faces of these students who, without continuing their studies, see no other future," reported La Presse.

About 10 lecturers had applied for transfer to other universities, creating a big gap in the establishment. Instead of studying the correct subjects for the third year of private law, students were taught economic law, management, accountancy and other subjects unrelated to their programme, because of the teachers' departure.

"They're teaching us subjects that have no relevance to the course we have followed. At the end of the course we learn we can't take the masters - that's the limit, because the licence [bachelor equivalent] has no value," a student told La Presse. "Some of us are in despair."

So were lecturers who were working in conditions that left much to be desired, reported the paper, which said the faculty's teaching body was largely composed of student researchers who were preparing their theses.

They were dissatisfied with working conditions and the absence of research facilities. One of them told La Presse he regularly had to go to Sousse University to carry out his research.

The paper also reported that young short-contract teachers had not always been paid what they were due "If this situation continues, they will do a bunk too," it said.

La Presse noted university problems in the cities essentially concerned teaching programmes and insufficient coordination with the employment market.

Jendouba had been failing since its creation - cancelled courses, lack of teachers, dilapidated buildings; any future higher education reform should restore its vocation and the resources necessary for it to function, the paper said.

But for a university located in a rural area that was predominantly agricultural, the basic options for the kind of education it offered should be reconsidered, to reconcile its objectives with the specificities of the region, said La Presse.

* This article is drawn from local media. University World News cannot vouch for the accuracy of the original reports.